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History of Kansas Hispanic Community

Mexican immigrants came to Kansas to escape poverty or the Revolution in their own country. The movement began around 1900 and was influenced by the growth of railroads and the need for labor during and after World War I. By the late 1920s, the depression and immigration laws effectively ended migration from Mexico.

Most Mexican immigrants to Kansas in the early decades of this century migrated from the Central Mesa region northwest of Mexico City. The poverty of the peon’s life in hacienda was compounded by, after 1910, the individual’s desire to escape the chaos of the Mexican Revolution.

Mexican railroad companies provided the migration mechanism by hiring agricultural workers who were unaccustomed to receiving cash. Along the northern portion of these routes, resident labor was so scarce that workers were brought from the south, thus carrying the central-Mexican villager a thousand miles from his home and within a few miles of the U.S. border. The American agent, charged by the U.S. railroad companies with the task of hiring large numbers of laborers and armed with gold as payment, had little difficulty attracting Mexicans across the not-very-formidable dividing line separating the two countries.

The employment agents (enganchistas) met northbound trains from Mexico at El Paso and offered the largely penniless immigrants various and competing inducements of board, lodging and transportation to a place of work. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the Rock Island railroad lines both used agents to supply laborers. In an eight-month period, (1907-08), agents supplied about 16,500 Mexicans to various railroad companies. Many were sent directly from the border to Kansas City.

Work on railroad section gangs, construction, or in roundhouses occupied most of the 8,429 Mexicans in Kansas in 1910. Until 1940, Mexican immigrants and their descendants in Kansas worked primarily on railroads or in the salt mining, sugar-beet processing or meat-packing industries.

With some expectation, first generation Mexicans in Kansas had little formal education and relied on the Spanish language. They lived together in colonies, often outside the settled community and without basic city services. Prior to World War II, the Mexican people lived in a segregated society. The children attended Mexican classes (largely in parochial schools), and even the seating patterns in church relegated Mexican parishioners to the back pews.

However, even though second generations, low educational achievement status was the rule. High geographical mobility caused by seasonal work needs in the railroad and sugar-beet industries rendered sustain school attendance impossible. Furthermore, without sustained schooling, Spanish remained the dominant language and upward employment mobility suffered. An inability to speak English and poor school attendance kept the Mexican American in laboring positions.

From 1900 to 1940, few employers maintained records on Mexican Americans, paying as so many did wages far below subsistence. However, in 1928, when Congressional pressure sought to turn over jobs held by Mexicans to Anglo unemployed, the railroads fought to retain the reliable Mexican labor.

The fact is that, especially from 1900 to 1940, Mexican labor was an invaluable asset to the railroad industry, one that was perennially short of manpower. As members of an ethnic group, Mexicans have received no recognition for their substantial contribution to the growth of the state’s economy. In fact, in the three histories of the Santa Fe railroad written during this century, only one mentions Mexican labor, and that, in a quarter-page reference.

In the sugar beet industry of Western Kansas, Mexicans comprised almost the entire labor force and contributed to the livelihood of all Kansans. During this period, they were ignored or discriminated against by most Anglo Americans.

“Persons of Spanish Origin” includes all persons who identify themselves as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Mexicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Hispanic origin or descent.

By its own estimates, the Census Bureau missed two percent of all Whites and eight percent of all Blacks in 1960. Slightly lower undercounts of 1.9 percent for Whites and 7.7 percent for Blacks were estimated in 1970, with 10 percent of all Black men uncounted. No official estimates of the 1970 Census undercounts of Hispanics have been made but the percentage of Hispanics overlooked is thought to fall between the figures for Blacks and Whites.

However, Hispanics believe that Census undercounts are higher for persons of Spanish origin than they are for Blacks.

Some of the obstacles to an accurate enumeration of minorities in the Census have involved the problems of language and cultural barriers which have separated some Census takers from Hispanic persons. General mistrust of government officials and surveys is also a factor.